Spaceships are a modern phenomenon and, likewise, their Hebrew name, halalit (ha-la-LEET), was born in the 20th century space age.
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Initially, when Hebrew writers wanted to talk about spaceships, they did what translators often do when facing a lexical gap: literally translate the word in question. The result was sefinot halal, a direct translation of the English "spaceship," which itself is a loanword from the German luftschiff.
But in 1952, when Haolam Haze, an Israeli weekly newspaper, reported sightings of flying saucers, editor Uri Avnery decided the phrase “sefinot halal” was unbefitting. “It doesn’t look anything like a ship,” he told me in an interview. So he invented the word halalit instead.
What he did was take the Hebrew word for space - halal - and add the suffix “it,” which had become a suffix for vehicles ever since Itamar Ben Yehuda came up with mehonit (car) and hashmalit (tram). Hebrew also now has monit (taxi) and masait (truck).
Halalit caught on in spoken Hebrew right away, though other newspapers resisted using it in print for nearly a decade, preferring sefinot halal until the mid-'60s when the space race was in full swing.
“One of the only joys in life that does you no harm is hearing a word you yourself came up with being used as if it had always been there,” Avnery told me. He gets to enjoy this pleasure quite a bit since he also came up with balyan (party-goer), mahazemer (a musical), yoman (a daily planner), as well as the Hebrew acronym for Knesset member, which was tacked to the front of his name when he was elected to parliament in 1965.
Not all of Avnery’s neologisms were as successful as halalit. He also came up with halalish (astronaut) and halalifa (space suit) but these never got off the ground.
Over the decades, vessels sent to space began to be called space shuttles and not spaceships, and Hebrew followed suit, using ma'aborot halal for the "real" science research and halalit being relegated to the realms of science fiction.
Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.